RA-64518 preparing for the long journey to Komsomolsk-na-Amure on the ramp at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

RA-64518 preparing for the long journey to Komsomolsk-na-Amure on the ramp at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Preface: As I was stepping off my flight onto a hard stand at Domodedovo, I learned that Aeroflot was purchasing Transaero. What that will mean for Transaero is unclear at this time. What I can assume, however, is that Aeroflot’s dislike of oddball fleet types puts Transaero’s three Tupolev Tu-214s in extreme danger and that makes me sad. It also made the fact that I have now flown on a Tu-214 that much more important. The things that I had to do to get that flight — they might cause the standard AvGeek to go mad!

RA-64518 was the last, commercial, Tu-214 built to date - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

RA-64518 was the last commercial Tu-214 built to date – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

You ever wanted to do something really, really, really stupid? I call that a weekday. I am, more or less, Homer Simpson. I am the kind of person more comparable to a talking dog. The kind of person who will smash through a bay window just to shout “WHO WANTS LOTTERY TICKETS?!” This impulsivity and lack of self preservation gives me advantages that most do not have. Most people, when presented with the idea that if they want to fly on a Tu-214, do not immediately think the best option is to fly almost all the way across Russia in one day. They probably think that’s a bad idea. By the time they are saying all the ways it could go wrong, I’ve already paid.

Russia is the largest country in the world. My plan would not even take me to its extreme Eastern edge - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Russia is the largest country in the world. My plan would not even take me to its extreme Eastern edge. – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

I also managed to convince a friend to join me. It feels so cromulent to be part of an international gang of idiots. He also, in a fit of pique, decided to track down Transaero’s director of International Public Relations and tell her what our intentions were.

I think we confused her, but the good kind of bewilderment. “When we saw that two journalists had booked a round trip across Russia in one day, just to fly on a Tu-214, we knew they were serious” was the first thing she told us when we met her. Although I am not sure “serious,” was the word she was thinking… maybe more along the lines of “mental?”

Whatever the case, I cannot say enough nice things about how helpful she was. I’ve worked with many airline PR people and I’d say she was one of the best.

Looking down the nacelle of a Progress PS-90 engine - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Looking down the nacelle of an Aviadvigatel PS-90 engine – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Russia, despite being a free country since 1991, still maintains a strong security posture. They want everything to be in place, everyone to do exactly what they ask, nothing to deviate from the mean. Pretty much the same as every other country.

The good thing is that Russians are used to this and rather than adopting the mantra of zero tolerance, zero thought, zero flexibility; they work around it. When Domodedovo told me that I needed different visas in order to gain ramp access to photograph our airframe, I was not happy. Then Transaero decided, instead, to get the Domodedovo press office involved and drive us out to the hardstand on a special Transaero van. Now we are talking.

All of these planes could use good homes, preferably mine - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

All of these planes could use good homes, preferably mine – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

I might visit airports with old Soviet metal parked, but it is not often that I am allowed to take photos. Curiously, the airport press man did nothing other than provide legitimacy. That really impressed me. I mean, who does that!? I guess it doesn’t matter. Our hardstand just happened to be right next to the Domodedovo aircraft storage area. Even three years ago, it made Victorville look empty. You could find any Tu-204, Il-62, Tu-154 you wanted parked there. Now there are just a few Domodedovo Airlines Il-62s, the entirety of their Il-96 fleet, an errant 757, and a few Tu-154s parked there. I think there might even be an Embraer 120. 

Boarding a Transaero Tu-214. What more can you want? Photo - Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Boarding a Transaero Tu-214. What more can you want? Photo – Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

After the tour, it was time to head to my aircraft, which is one of three Tu-214s operated by Transaero. It’s a strange plane. In some ways, it feels like a 757. Other ways, something older. Part Tu-154M, part Yak, and there are hints of Ilyushin.

You can see the strong Tupolev lineage in the sidewalls, the bins, the gasper vents. Make no mistake, while this plane was assembled in 2009, it is no Superjet. It just feels so much more authentic. Even better, there’s a huge air recirculation fan in the front of the business class cabin walls. It’s very loud and then add the avionics cooling fans, the APU, and assorted other noises and you know, even before start up, you are in for a good loud flight.

It also maintains the strangely nautical vibe you get on Russian planes. Perhaps, this is why the captain always addresses us using “корабль,” the sort of generic word for ship, boat, or vessel, as opposed to “самолет,” which means airplane.

This is the business class cabin on a Transaero Tu-214. Surprisingly comfortable - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

This is the business class cabin on a Transaero Tu-214. Surprisingly comfortable. – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Then we sat. An hour later, we were still the only passengers on the plane. Finally, a van showed up to take us back to the lounge. While the rest of the passengers were told there was a weather issue at our fuel stop in Nizhnevartovsk, we were informed that some engine and electrical work was done that would require a full engine run and sign off from both Tupolev and KAPO.

Transaero's Tu-214 Business class has about a 38" pitch. Very nice when you include the leg rest - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Transaero’s Tu-214 Business class has about a 38″ pitch. Very nice when you include the leg rest – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

My suspicion is that the reason behind this difference in information is that through the years, since the Soviet Union collapsed, Russians have begun to fear their own aviation industry. They don’t want to hear there is a mechanical delay. In their minds, that means the plane is even more dangerous. The plane is not dangerous at all, of course, but perception is a hard thing to overcome and airlines are working on it.

Economy on the Tu-214 also seems pretty generous with seat pitch that seems between 32" and 33" - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Economy on the Tu-214 also seems pretty generous with seat pitch that seems between 32″ and 33″ – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Around three hours later, we were back on the plane. The doors shut, the engines started, and I have to say that the PS-90 engine is intense. It brings the noises of Soloviev D-30 combined with the high bypass fan of a Lotarev D-36. Sounds like a chainsaw. It’s amazing. I could use a couple for my front yard.

This was very much an expedition. Every Tu-214 flight in the Transaero network travels with two Tu-214 qualified mechanics. On our outbound flight to KXK, there was one old man who looked like he had fixed every Soviet aircraft since the Li-2, and another man who looked like Michael Chiklis and was always laughing. They weren’t even traveling in uniform. This, this is what I want. I am not kidding.

After speaking with the Tu-214 department director, I learned that these were the equivalent style of mechanics that you would find on Top Gear. They can fix anything that doesn’t require a complete engine change. If they were not valuable assets to the company, they would have probably been written up for uniform violations. Doing something like this, you want the best in every way.

Soon to be relics, lovely Transaero glassware for our pre-departure beverages - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Soon to be relics, lovely Transaero glassware for our pre-departure beverages – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Taxi was taxi. The best part is that, after dark, you can see the old-style beacon light paint the wings in conic sections as it spins past your quadrant of the cabin. So much better than the once-every-three-seconds red blip of a 787. LEDs? Eh.

Takeoff was beastly slow and impressively loud. The chainsaw went into overdrive, added a vacuum cleaner, and then there was the sound of the high lift devices. This is the loudest twin I have flown — which is saying a lot.

Around 41 seconds later, we were airborne and into a pathetic climb. Now, I know the Tu-214 doesn’t really have the range to go to KXK nonstop. Even though the first segment to Nizhnevartovsk was only around three hours, we were full of passengers returning to Khabarovsk Krai for the start of school. Somewhere around an hour after takeoff, we reached cruising altitude. I can only imagine how this thing would have performed had it entered service with the RB-211E4 option that was denied for political reasons in the mid-1990s.

Transaero takes food seriously. There are four pages of menus. Three for drinks, one for food - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Transaero takes food seriously. There are four pages of menus. Three for drinks, one for food. – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Dinner time!

Out of Moscow, Transaero goes all-out on catering. I am unendingly impressed by Russian airlines to start with, but Transaero took it to another level.

The menus are, of course, printed on high quality cardboard. There’s a spirits menu, a wine list, a tea menu, a coffee menu, a soft drink menu, and the actual dinner menu. Dinner choices consisted of one appetizer and three main course choices. I went with the chicken with a mustard sauce, Brussels sprouts, and mashed potatoes. It was simply outstanding; from presentation, to china, to taste. This is how all very long domestic flights need to be catered. No seven-hour nightmare marches with nothing but a cold breakfast box to show for it in business class. Give me this!

Chicken with mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, and red cabbage - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Chicken with mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, and red cabbage – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

The obligatory fish appeared to be some sort of salmon. The fruits were nicely exotic, but all very popular in Russia. Pineapple, gooseberries, and kiwi. Sadly, despite all the hype over watermelon in Moscow, there was none. My only complaint is that there could have been more. Truly a fantastic meal.

A pre-dessert fruit plate - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

A pre-dessert fruit plate – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Dessert was even more impressive. The flight attendants brought out each choice to show the passengers individually. I went with the coffee cake. Fantastic. I also, of course, had to try the “strawberry cream” tea. That may have tasted a bit too much like drinking a gummy bear.

Coffee cake and a steep your own tea system - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Coffee cake and a steep-your-own tea system – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

One more surprise. There is a form of IFE on this aircraft after all!

While they may not be SSD-based, they do offer a decent selection of music and video - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

While they may not be SSD-based, they do offer a decent selection of music and video – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Remember the really, really, old devices exactly like that from the early part of the last decade? It was one of those… I think. Either way, I never had any sort of AVOD on a Russian plane before. Shame I did not need it.

After that, it was time to recline about 150-160º and get some sleep. The pillows and blankets are comfortable, but not market leading. Still, with how rock-steady a Tu-214 is when heavy at a cruising altitude of around 33,000 feet, one can easily get some rest. There’s no odd squirrelly motions and almost unusual attitudes you find on a light Tu-204-100.

When I was awoken, it was time to put the seat back into the full upright position for our descent into Nizhnevartovsk for fuel.

This is the lively ramp of Nizhnevartovsk at 3:30am - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

This is the lively ramp of Nizhnevartovsk at 3:30am – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Eerie is a way to describe the view on decent. There are numerous oil refineries, natural gas wells, and general oil production facilities. The sky is lit up with the orange glow of hundreds of burn off flares – some of them extending hundreds of feet.

The landing was exceptionally smooth, though. There’s not much to see at 3:00am in Nizhnevatrovsk. A few Mi-8s, a couple UTAir ATRs. No one is doing anything other than the local FBO waiting to get paid for around 8,000 gallons of TS-1.

We were not allowed to deplane, get up, or even use electronics (if anyone was watching). It made for an unpleasant sit. The fact we could feel the aircraft settling on its OLEOS and groaning as it gained mass more than made up for it.

Around an hour later, we were fueled, documented, and back on the runway. Shortly after rotation, I was back in my reclined position and fast asleep.

This was listed as a chicken Quesadilla (in both English and Russian) - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

This was listed as a chicken quesadilla (in both English and Russian) – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

I was then poked by one of the flight attendants “[inaudable due to wake up fog] завтрак?”

Okay, so here’s the thing. I will always eat on a plane, but breakfast may be a bit of a misnomer for a flight that crosses almost all of Russian time zones to a city on the same time zone as Sydney, Australia. When I checked my clock it was around noon. Then again, I am not sure what the Russian word is for brunch.

I have never had a quesadilla that looked like that, nor served with Italian Arabiatta sauce before. Oddly, the combination was pretty good. Still have no idea what kinds of cheeses those actually were; perhaps I was thrown off by all the star anise they had been sitting with.

Tea came with an apricot pie, nice! Photo - Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Tea came with an apricot pie, nice! Photo – Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Even the apricot pie was nice. I think a better description would be turnover — whatever.

Around another two hours of napping later, it was time for our descent from ~38,000 feet towards Khurba Air Base. There is nothing around Komsomolsk-na-Amure, save for the Amur river and forest.

If you look carefully, you can make out Komsomolsk-na-Amure (Kurba) Airport - Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

If you look carefully, you can make out Komsomolsk-na-Amure (Khurba) Airport – Photo: Bernie Leighton | AirlineReporter

Komsomolsk-na-Amure in and of itself is bizarre. Built by Komsomol volunteers (hence the name) to be an industrial city that was hard to reach by foreign invaders, it was a center of Soviet military hardware production. If you go outside the city, there is an abandoned nuclear submarine factory. What remains of Komsomolsk’s bizarre and depressing past is KNAAZ, the factory where the Sukhoi Superjet is built.

BONUS: Some Great Surprises Flying on an Aeroflot Superjet

On top of that, almost all of Sukhoi’s modern multi-role aircraft are assembled there. That, however, is at the airport in the northern part of the city: Dzmegi. Our airport was Khurba and it is scary. Why is it scary? Because the desire to take photographs is too strong! Why is that a bad thing? Well, Khurba is an active VVS base.

- Photo: Google Maps

Khurba, seen from the street – Photo: Google Maps

Unless you are a serious cold war historian- there’s nothing new there. Just… well… DO NOT TAKE PICTURES ON A RUSSIAN MILITARY BASE WHEN THERE ARE GUARDS EVERYWHERE! I choose to not spend my time detained by the Russian military, so you will not be seeing any. Legally speaking, the VVS even owns the passenger terminal. Oh, how I wanted to photograph the giant Soviet-era Komsomol mural on the decrepit terminal wall.

Even inside the terminal itself, it’s utterly perfect. Nothing there, other than the check-in computer, and maybe the x-ray/metal detector combo hasn’t been repaired since 1991. You will never find an airport quite this weird. Airports like Khurba really let you see how other former Soviet or Warsaw Pact republics got their design influences. I would not change that for a second. Even the business lounge, seemingly being an old crew ready room with a book about Vladivostok Avia.

One more thing. Komsomolsk-na-Amure is still a sort of sensitive area – if you want to go there, make sure you list the intention on your visa application. If you are foreign, they will want to inspect your passport and visa. It doesn’t take long, it’s just disconcerting to people not familiar to dealing with how things used to be. For the record, I stated that I was visiting on my visa application and it was approved. It’s better to be honest. That way the locals know you are allowed to be there.

A Transaero Tu-214 - Photo: Atrem Katranzhi | FlickrCC

A Transaero Tu-214 – Photo: Atrem Katranzhi | FlickrCC

Regardless of all that, Transaero is an amazing airline, and the Tu-214 is an amazing aircraft. The only thing I would change is to, maybe, add a toothbrush to the amenity kit. Everything else earns nothing but high praise.

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MANAGING CORRESPONDENT - SEATTLE, WA. Bernie has traveled around the world to learn about, experience, and photograph different types of planes. He will go anywhere to fly on anything. He spent four years in Australia learning about how to run an airline, while putting his learning into practice by mileage running around the world. You can usually find Bernie in his natural habitat: an airport. Email: bernie@airlinereporter.com.

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13 Comments

Great article, thanks Homer……..err, sorry Bernie. Also interesting that Aeroflot have taken over Transaero. Any chance of them continuing with the A380 orders now??

They still wanted the A380s when I spoke to them a day before the surprise Aeroflot acquisition. I feel like if they could use their strengths in the Russian market, abandon DME entirely, and focus completely at VKO; there is a great place for the A380 at Transaero. Aeroflot hasn’t said what they plan to do one way or another, so until they do- I am assuming the Transaero plans still stand.

The one good thing about whatever Aeroflot does to Transaero is that outside of Russia it seems as if no one has ever heard of Transaero. That can lead to some very asymmetric loads.

Conclusion: A380s exist as part of the UN fleet plan until there is a definitive no.

Did you hear anything about their 747-8s?

Those are “on track”. The Tu-214 cabin manager is also the 747-8 cabin manager. I know, pre-acquisition they were going to KPAE a fair bit for training with the aircraft. As far as I know, they are going to show up some time in 2016.

I am very jealous of your adventures Bernie! I am fascinated by Russia and by interesting and uncommon planes, so I love your articles. If you need a traveling companion next time let me know lol!

Bernie, this does not make you insane at all. Anyone who doesn’t get it is crazy!

Hello, Bernie!

Thank you for your amazing report. You’re lucky, because Transaero is going to take out Tu-214 from it’s fleet very soon. If you allow I would like to give a couple of comments.

about food – Transaero cooperates with Dellos Air Service (it belongs to the well-known owner of a Moscow famous restaurant Pushkin) and the food for business & first (Imperial) class passengers from Moscow is from the restaurant. On the way back, the food on board is loaded from a local catering. For this reason, there is no menu on the way back.

amenity kit – yep, this is a problem ((

foto at airport – unfortunately old stupid bans have been still working at the regional Russians airports. And unfortunately you have to accept that. At least for now.

Larry Violette

There are two or three Transaero 747-400s or newer at Florida’s Malbourne airport

Yes,

MLB is where UN gets their 744s overhauled. “Striped Flight” was painted there.

Jonathan

RIP Transaero. Sales of tickets stopped, end of flight operations on December 15.

https://www.facebook.com/transaero/posts/921438191263874

Who will be responsible for my safety and security now?

Yeah, I memorized and translated the song. It helps to ease the pain.

Hi Bernie,

Another delightful flight report that made me already make plans to fly this aircraft in my next trip to Russia (my wife is Russian). However, after the recent news, I believe that what you did proves you aren’t insane, but very lucky! 😉
Regards!

For me the only way to make that flight better is if it was on a IL-62!

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